This weekend, Grey Gardens, Albert and David Maysles' 1976 cinema verite classic about Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Edie, reopens for a weeklong run at the Nuart. In the film, the 79-year-old “Big” Edie, a former society beauty and sister of Jacqueline Onassis' father, “Black Jack” Bouvier, lies in bed, reminiscing about her former grandness. “Little” Edie, who once studied Oriental philosophy and English literature and dreamed of being a poet and a dancer, periodically bares her breasts. The Beale ladies bicker and mug for the camera in their crumbling 28-room East Hampton estate, known as Grey Gardens. Big Edie died soon after the film was completed; Little Edie is now 81 and lives in a Miami Beach apartment complex. “Mother trained me to do without men” was always her nonchalant explanation of why she never married.
“I was so disappointed in Grey Gardens! It upset me terribly,” exclaims Little Edie during a recent phone interview, in a voice eerily reminiscent of Jackie Onassis. “I thought they were going to show me as a dancer. I was the greatest Latin rock dancer that's never been seen! I thought we were going to make some money, and we didn't make a thing! It's a documentary, you know? I don't like documentaries. Do you?”
I ask her how she feels about Grey Gardens today. “Oh, the film has made me awfully sad. It brings back so many terrible memories. Those last five years before Mother died were very hard. It was so awful, what they did to us. They raided our place without a search warrant! They sprayed my eyes and I was blinded and had to have the lenses cut out! Mother and I never did anything to anyone. We led quiet lives. But her brother took all her money. And the family! They were always after us.” Her voice drops to a conspiratorial whisper. “The Bouviers were dangerous, you know? Dangerous!”
“How well did you know Jackie?”
“Oh, I grew up with her. I didn't like her very much, but I was terrified of her. Those Bouviers, you know. Those last years, Mother and I were just living in terror.”
Suddenly, she changes the subject. “Where are you?” she asks. “Where am I calling?”
“Los Angeles! Isn't that marvelous! I've never been to Los Angeles.” She becomes impassioned over the O.J. trial, insisting that he was innocent, and then pauses. “I think Bill Clinton was absolutely sent by God to save this country! And those terrible people are torturing him! Why? Do you know?”
As I muster up a response of some sort, the subject changes again.
“Tell me, what do you do, dear?” she asks.
“I'm a writer.”
“You're a writer! You know, I've written 500 poems. They're all in bags. Somewhere. Oh, darling, I've been through the most horrible things in the world. But you can't tell Americans that. They're used to lots of money and everything being great. And in America you're not supposed to live with your parents. But I don't know. I loved Mother.”
“You must miss her.”
“Oh, yes!” She sounds as though she's going to cry. Her voice drops again. “They said my mother died of arteriosclerosis. But I think she was murdered! I know who did it! The relatives! They had her operated on and she died! They wanted to prove I didn't take care of her. I don't know where my mother is buried. Maybe in the Bouvier plot in East Hampton. How could I find out? Do you know?”
“Edie, what do you miss the most about your mother?”
“My mother,” Edie says slowly, emphatically, “was a living, walking, breathing saint! She was a holy saint! She quoted the Bible every 15 minutes! I wanted to write the pope a long letter about my mother. Oh, it was terrible, what the family did to her. You know, Jackie died with 200 million dollars. But I don't think it's worth it if you have to marry all the time and be unhappy. I think it's much better to be normal! Don't you?”